Last week, the city just wouldn’t thaw. On January 12, as the first flurries arrived, many restaurant, food cart, and bar owners prepared for, at most, a day or two of closures. They sold “snowpocalypse kits,” hoping to make up for the potentially lost sales, and left their faucets dripping, hoping to avoid a burst pipe. Some opened up on Sunday or Monday, relying on chains or traction tires to get to work.
Very few anticipated a full week’s worth of closures. The days of freezing rain and low temperatures kept the ice from melting; even when days climbed above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it was by a matter of degrees. Streets remained slippery, and many restaurant workers simply couldn’t leave their driveways. Certain restaurant owners closed for upwards of seven or eight days; others closed for a day or two. Some returned to their restaurants to find flooded dining rooms, burst pipes, or, in the case of Old Asia Teahouse in Beaverton, an 80-year-old fallen tree in the parking lot. But now that much of the ice has melted, restaurant owners are grappling with the financial aftermath — tens of thousands of dollars lost, not to mention the damage to their buildings and appliances.
Of the dozen Portland restaurant, food cart, and bar owners that spoke with Eater Portland, businesses lost an average of $31,000 in sales, the largest losses reported close to $60,000. Owners reported anywhere from 50 percent to 95 percent loss in weekly sales — even those who only closed the business for a single day or less. Tryzen Patricio of Grind Wit Tryz closed the Alberta Hawaiian restaurant on Tuesday, but he and partner Candace Lacuesta walked in to open the restaurant on Wednesday. “We were down 95 percent of sales,” Patricio says. “I would say we got mostly people from our neighborhood coming in.”
Ricky Gomez, the owner of Southeast Division cocktail bar Palomar, says the choice to open or close the restaurant during inclement weather is an impossible one: If the restaurants close, workers miss out on hours and tips that they depend on, but if restaurants open, owners incur the daily operating costs with no real promise of revenue. For Gomez, the lack of customers also impacted his decision to close for four days.
“We had staff willing to come into work through all the bad weather, but if the consumer is not willing to come out, then what is the point?” Gomez says. “It’s also a double hit to the employees who rely on tips for a portion of their earnings and the business who is operating at a consistent loss.”
To make up for the missing revenue, many restaurant owners have opened, or are planning on opening, on days they are typically closed. At Urdaneta, the tapas restaurant on Alberta, chef Javier Canteras closed on Tuesday, and tried to reopen the restaurant with a three-person team on Wednesday; right before service, however, he discovered that the bathroom pipe had frozen. They were able to reopen on Thursday with a smaller crew; but some of the restaurant’s employees simply could not make it in to work and suffered financial losses as a result. Urdaneta typically closes on Mondays, but to make up for the lost service, Canteras decided to open for service on January 22, making his grandfather’s rabbit and seafood paella to try to draw customers in.
“For restaurant workers who really depend on those hours, those tips, that’s really damaging,” Canteras says. “You have the end of the month and rent coming up, and missing a week of work is hard for a lot of us.”
Other business owners are going for straight-up crowdsourcing to replace damaged equipment. Speed-o Cappuccino, the coffee cart within the Lil’ America pod, lost its espresso maker in the freezing conditions, which has dramatically impacted the cart’s ability to bounce back after the storm. To try to pay for a new one, owner Dahlia Hanson began a fundraising campaign on Instagram, seeking CashApp donations in exchange for free drinks. “Our espresso machine is the heartbeat of our business,” the Instagram post reads. “I know times are tough for everyone, and small businesses like ours are going through some serious mental gymnastics to keep our dreams alive.”
For some, a change in business model helped the restaurant stay afloat. Aaron Barnett, the owner of Northwest Portland’s celebratory French restaurant St. Jack, decided to get into lower-cost dining during the storm. The bar side of the restaurant brought back its burger and “filet au fish,” lowering the operating costs and attracting a wider swath of diners. It was enough of a hit that Barnett decided to revive the bar menu back full-time, debuting in February.
Still, Barnett is tired of coming up with new ways to adapt while the city shuts down. The chef grew up in Canada, where freezing conditions lasted months, not days; “if they just told everyone to stay home, the entire economy would crash,” he says.
“This city needs infrastructure in place for this weather,” Barnett says. “Small operators, arguably the weakest, are left to shoulder the cost and the losses and make the ethical call to put themselves and their employees at risk to preserve the industry that Portland is known for.”